Sam Leith: “You can’t force Britishness on everyone, Dave”

As I commented on Modernity’s post ‘Words Matter’, words always matter. In the execrable Evening Standard last week, I read a piece about a delinquent family living on housing benefit in a beautiful house. The ethnic or religious group of the family was completely irrelevant and incidental but the Standard dropped it in anyway – as Jennifer Lipman in Mod’s post puts it, to be notched up by haters of this particular group as another good reason for hating them.

And then I remembered how, on the occasion of David Cameron’s disasterously-timed damning speech on multiculturalism, columnist Sam Leith managed to dose the confused wits of Evening Standard readers with smelling salts with his, ‘You can’t force Britishness on everyone, Dave‘. Here is is.

“Classical rhetoric gives us the concept of kairos, or “timeliness”. The PM could have done with some of that, having just given a talk on how multiculturalism fosters militant Islam within hours of English Defence League thugs stomping through Luton shouting “Who the f*** is Allah?”

Timing does matter in the race relations game. An unimpeachably theoretical discussion, depending on context, can be incendiary. Defenders of Enoch Powell rightly point out that he didn’t say “One, two, three, four, I declare a race war!” He said (to paraphrase): “I’m worried it will all kick off if we carry on like this.” But the two aren’t as easily separable as all that. Think of the man in the pub who tells you: “Look, this is a rough old boozer and your face don’t fit. Don’t get me wrong: I wouldn’t lay a finger on you. But I can’t vouch for my mates over there…”

Mr Cameron, mind you, speaks in good faith. And he articulates a widely held anxiety: that the passage from separate to separatist, separatist to extremist, extremist to terrorist, is an established one; and that the “hands-off tolerance” of bien-pensants eases that passage.

Personally, I’m quite in favour of “hands-off tolerance”. In fact, I’d say “hands-off” is pretty much the definition of tolerance. “Hands-on tolerance,” or perhaps “clear-off tolerance”, is the sort of tolerance the EDL wishes to extend to Muslim Britons.

When the PM says we shouldn’t fund jihadi youth clubs, or treat Islamic fascists as spokesmen for their co-religionists, we’re as one. But where he says we need an “active, muscular liberalism” that “believes in certain values and actively promotes them”, we part ways. Insisting that people hold certain values is not the job of even someone as important as the Prime Minister. It’s an impertinence to imagine it’s in his gift, and dangerous folly to seek to achieve it by state fiat. “Britishness” is the sum of everything British people think, say and do: not a handful of ideas politicians decide are good for us and administer like a dose of cod-liver oil.

Closed ethnic communities may not be to your taste but unless you can imagine a policy remedy that isn’t insane – racial housing quotas or banning the public speaking of Urdu, say – you have to live with them. Separatists are citizens too.

What you are entitled to expect is that the law of the land – not some idea, or some “British value”, but the law -applies as absolutely within them as it does everywhere else. And the law, lest we forget, forbids violence, hate-speech, oppression of women and the building of bombs out of fertiliser.

It’s frustrating to think that it’s only at this point that the state can intervene, but there are good reasons why we don’t have “pre-crime” police. You can’t make people love each other, and you shouldn’t try to.”

3 thoughts on “Sam Leith: “You can’t force Britishness on everyone, Dave”

  1. 1066 was a source of national humiliation, Crecy and Agincourt redressed the balance. The outrages committed by the Christian Crusaders are conveniently ignored as are the human rights violations of the mighty British Empire. Churchill and the heroic efforts of the Battle of Britain pilots have moved out of history and into legend and let none of us forget 1966; a triumph over our most recent “enemy”; what more fitting way to celebrate the 900th anniversary of our humiliation by our “oldest” enemy. Britain has changed maybe not for the better but that change has happened and it is a function of the last 1000 years of history. Multi-culturalism is not something to celebrate (leave that for childrens’ birthdays) it is something to accept. Women and men, Asians and afro-Carribeans are just people with similar hopes and frailties that we are all prey to. Positive discrimination is as divisive as negative discrimination let us all respect one another for our skills, talents and contributions to society. So I say down with patriotism down with nationalism and down with xenophobia for all peoples. Homogeneity and insularity are dull; the sooner that is accepted the better. It is not what we have been it is what we can be that is important; life may well be a jioke but let’s all try to make it a good one.

  2. This may be late, but congratulations on a seriously sane and reasoned post. “‘…Hands-off’ is pretty much the definition of tolerance” has to be one of the most common-sense statements I’ve read in the past several years.

    • I came across another very good recent Evening Standard piece by Leith titled ‘Stop this futile hullabaloo over migrants’.

      From it:

      “May is still smarting, it seems, from her humiliation last year when her flagship example of human rights law gone mad — the immigrant whose deportation was thwarted on the grounds that he owned a cat — turned out to be imaginary.

      The law responsible for that incensing imaginary example — Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, promising the right to a family life — remains on her hit-list.

      Last year Article 8 was successfully used by 185 foreign prisoners to appeal against deportation. No doubt some of those were bad findings, but — with maybe three-quarters of a million illegal immigrants estimated to be living here — the existence of Article 8 is hardly the pressing problem of the age. This is pure politics.”

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